Meryl Streep, looking less glamorous than usual for Into the Woods.
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Stephen Sondheim: A life’s work in progress

On Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday, he will be revered as the genius of musical theatre. But his failures are just as fascinating as his successes.

Of all the tributes bestowed on Stephen Sondheim, the most revealing is the birthday concert. A composer-lyricist, Sondheim, who turns 85 in March, writes his songs within a context at once dramatic and musical. But in the events at the Royal Albert Hall and Lincoln Centre to mark his eightieth birthday, as in the revue shows Side By Side By Sondheim and Putting It Together, songs conceived as dramatic monologues or narrative set pieces, and studded with internal allusions and motifs, are wrenched from their setting and treated as “hits”. A faulty show can be reduced to a couple of ear-catching moments; a song that seemed wrong for the character – an accusation that Sondheim now levels at most of the lyrics in West Side Story – is free to show its virtues. This act of filleting is consistent with a wider process whereby Sondheim’s vices and off-days have been tippexed from the record, leaving only genius.

It’s a word that follows him around. In his 1997 book on musicals, Mark Steyn called the chapter about Sondheim “The Genius”, with the inverted commas left implicit. The opening chapter of the recently published Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies (OUP) talks bluntly of “Sondheim’s genius”. The rival views that a) Sondheim betrayed the musical – held by Steyn, John Lahr and others – and that b) he revolutionised it – shared by the contributors to the Oxford Handbook – is a suitable response to his mixed heritage. A boyhood apprenticeship to Oscar Hammerstein (the lyricist of Show Boat and Oklahoma!) was followed by training with Milton Babbitt, a disciple of Schoenberg and author of the notorious essay “Who Cares If You Listen?”, which advocated a retreat from the “social aspects of musical composition” into a world of “private performance”. Sondheim himself has no trouble finding overlap. He stresses that Babbitt – the composer in his own right of the 1946 musical Fabulous Voyage – would assign Hammerstein songs for analysis. And he reserves special affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s highly antisocial Allegro, an earnest morality tale with a Greek chorus, one of the few forerunners in the Broadway canon of his own “unlikely” musicals, among them Pacific Overtures (1976), a slice of geopolitical history set in 1850s Japan, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) and, greatest of all, Sunday in the Park with George (1984), about the composition and afterlife of Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

As with most acquired tastes, the alternative reaction tends towards allergy, with no room for what the impresario in Sondheim’s 1981 show Merrily We Roll Along calls “sort of in between”. What has been lost, in the Sondheim skirmishes, is a sense of proportion. To his admirers, overzealous in defence, Sondheim has become a writer of musicals that never – not for even a minute – repelled a thoughtful audience with ostentation in wordplay or desperation in rhyme, with underfed melodies or overworked parodies, with glibness or gloom. A reluctance to cheer equals a failure of discernment. If you’re not part of the ovation, you’re part of the problem. And so a composer-lyricist who dares to alienate and annoy is borne heavenwards on a wave of what Steyn called “popular unpopularity”.

In commercial terms, the take on Sondheim which mattered – playing no small part in securing the unpopularity – was that of the New York Times, whose critics Walter Kerr and Frank Rich covered Broadway during the period in which Sondheim wrote all of his important work: Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd during Kerr’s tenure, Merrily We Roll AlongSunday in the Park with GeorgeInto the Woods (1986) and Assassins (1990) during Rich’s. Where Kerr panned show after show but declared Sondheim “the most sophisticated composer now working for the Broadway theatre”, Rich struck a more coherent balance, opening his first Sondheim review, of Merrily’s famously bad (and brief) initial run, with a crisp statement of what used to be a recognised yes-but position, before hero-worship washed it away: “. . . to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals”. It may be true, as he wrote in a later article, that people were never “neutral” about Sondheim, but ambivalence, too, is increasingly off the menu.

The perception (strengthened by Rich’s stubborn insistence on holding him to his own standards) that Sondheim was unloved in his homeland was among the factors that led to his adoption over here. As Steyn put it, the American public made Lloyd Webber “a multi-gazillionaire” but the British establishment made Sondheim “an artist”. It was Sondheim, and not Lloyd Webber, who was the inaugural Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford, Sondheim who received his own Prom. (His next biographer is the former Independent journalist David Benedict.) In the Oxford Handbook – based on a university conference held almost a decade ago at Goldsmiths – the American-born, London-based critic Matt Wolf, after asserting that Sondheim has “always held unique pride of place in Britain”, points out that the subsidised London theatre liberated his work from “the commercial dictates that rule on Broadway”.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, revival after revival ensured a Sondheim boom at just the point that the new work dried up. While directors such as Declan Donnellan, Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage mounted productions of Sweeney ToddAssassinsCompany and Merrily, Sondheim busied himself with curatorial projects, tweaking old shows and working on two books of annotated lyrics – Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat – that offer a tour of his principles and methods (musical theatre’s counterpart to Henry James’s prefaces). His sole addition to the oeuvre in this period was a musical about the enterprising Mizner brothers – an architect and an entrepreneur who were well known in the 1920s – that first appeared, in Mendes’s 1999 workshop production, as Wise Guys, briefly became Gold! and then Bounce, before arriving in 2008 under the title Road Show at New York’s Public Theatre, where it was greeted as little more than a non-turkey. (Back in 2000, Sondheim was already saying it had consumed too much of his time.)

His current work-in-progress, altogether more promising, is a musical that merges two of Buñuel’s films, The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. (His Bergman adaptation, A Little Night Music, is one of his best-loved shows – and produced his best-known song, “Send in the Clowns”.) For the time being, though, his reputation continues to depend on revivals, including, over the coming months, such tributes as a concert performance of A Little Night Music at the Palace Theatre on 26 January and a ten-night ENO residency for the Lincoln Center’s Sweeney Todd, with Bryn Terfel in the title role and Emma Thompson as his pie-baking accomplice, Mrs Lovett. More significant is the West End transfer of Chichester’s celebrated production of Gypsy, one of three shows for which he wrote the lyrics but not music (the others being West Side Story and Do I Hear a Waltz?), opening at the Savoy a week after his birthday. Kicking off festivities a little early is the ongoing run of Assassins, staged in traverse by Jamie Lloyd, the director credited (by Sondheim, among others) with finally making sense of the problematic Passion (1994) in his 2010 Donmar Warehouse production. (Assassins, which runs until 7 March, is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has replaced the Donmar as Sondheim’s official London home.) There is also a long-awaited film of Into the Woods, his Grimm Brothers mash-up, directed by Rob Marshall, and starring Meryl Streep as the Witch responsible for bringing the hapless Baker (James Corden) into contact with the Wolf (yet another Johnny Depp moustache), Rapunzel and co.

Variations on a tone: Sondheim’s form as a composer and lyricist runs the gamut from turkey and cliché to sublime artistry. Photo: Piotr Redlinski/New York Times

One of the myths of Sondheim’s production history is that resourceful directors undo the wrongs of those who went before, shedding light on a show’s too-long-hidden glory. In reality, Sondheim’s shows have often been better served by directors than the other way round. In Maria Friedman’s 2012 Menier production of Merrily, the one weak link was the backwards-running narrative – a pair of disillusioned Broadway songwriters end up wide-eyed – which doesn’t refresh, merely reverses, a familiar trajectory, and doesn’t complicate, simply flips, the surface tone and meaning of half a dozen wonderful songs. Another standout revival, Tooting Arts Club’s production last year of Sweeney Todd – staged in a pie-and-mash shop and sung with clarity and gusto – managed to thrive despite that show’s blockish characters, pantomime-ish predictability and hectic final third.

Jamie Lloyd and Rob Marshall deserve similar praise for bringing conviction (Lloyd in Assassins) and charm (Marshall in Into the Woods) to shows that don’t hang together. Having abandoned irony and neatness in the open-hearted, free-form Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim proceeded to write a pair of shows built around a gimmick-conceit – a fairy-tale musical! A political-murder musical! – and full of winky wit, lame wordplay (“If the end is right,/It justifies/The beans!”) and sweated-over punchline rhymes, as in the Wolf’s “There’s no possible way to describe what you feel/When you’re talking to your meal!”. Where Sunday uses a delicate musical counterpart to Seurat’s pointillism, the score to Into the Woods is all plinky placation, showing that, as one of the better songs (“I Know Things Now”) puts it, “Nice is different than good,” while Assassins offers a succession of formal parodies in place of a score that ramifies or accretes. (The parodies in Follies, better justified by its nostalgic story and theatrical setting, capture the forms’ original feeling as well as being clever at their expense.)

An aim of both these musicals is to solve the problem of what Sondheim calls “the monolithic chorus”, the musical-theatre convention whereby several characters seem to be expressing an improbable common aim. The opening and closing number of Assassins, “Everybody’s Got the Right” (“Everybody’s got the right to be happy”), sung by the whole cast, is designed as an anthem for the dispossessed – residents of an alternative America who can neither “be a scholar” nor “make a dollar”. The opening number of Into the Woods, “I Wish”, like the piece as a whole, works better partly because the characters are united by wishing without harbouring the same wish – and interrupt each other to that effect. The need to give Assassins a semblance of unity is evident in the idea of John Wilkes Booth as the muse of presidential assassins. Yet even this conceit doesn’t emerge until the final sequence, when Booth urges Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate American hope for good – which, given that we have already met characters with a fervent wish to kill later presidents, hardly stands up as a historical thesis.

But what is most disappointing about Sondheim’s later musicals is that, although they enable him to use song as a vehicle for drama and ideas, they inhibit his greatest gift as a songwriter, which is also his greatest contribution to the musical – the capture in writing of songs that evoke the moment of thought in movement. In the final song of Company, for instance, the Peter Pan-like central figure talks himself into accepting love, the grounds of his resistance (“Someone to need you too much./Someone to know you too well”) mutating into a plea: “Somebody, need me too much./Somebody, know me too well.” The opposite decision is rendered with equal sympathy in Sondheim’s most intricate monologue, “Finishing the Hat”. The title line, associative rather than grammatical, announces what the women in Georges Seurat’s life “have never understood” (“Finishing the hat/How you have to finish the hat”), setting off a long stream-of-consciousness sentence in which Georges weighs the urge to create against his desire for companionship. (The final line declares the winner: “Look, I made a hat/Where there never was a hat.”)

But whereas the historically cloudy Seurat could be built from Sondheim’s tailored sense of his character, Booth and Oswald and the ardent wishers who form a makeshift nuclear family in the woods are defined in terms of their actions – actions more or less fixed by the record and the Grimms. Motivation is mocked up after the fact. If these shows can nevertheless form the basis of a striking production and a diverting film, that is because Sondheim’s touch is never entirely absent. As with any great artist, the things that don’t work spring from the same sensibility as the ones that do, and serve to throw them into relief.

“Into the Woods” (PG) is on general release from 9 January

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars